For the first time in the history of the US, 30 percent of the 61 million Americans over 25 years old have bachelor’s degrees. The new statistics, which are based on figures released on Thursday by the Census Bureau, reveal an increase in people acquiring degrees that began in the mid-1990s. As of March 2011, 30.4 percent of Americans now have at least a bachelor’s degree while 10.9 percent have a graduate degree; ten years earlier, 26.2 percent and 8.7 percent did, respectively. All told, the percentage of Americans with bachelor’s degrees has grown by 15.4 percent in the past decade.
While the number of African-Americans and Latinos has significantly increased, they still trail whites in attaining college degrees. Indeed, as the New York Times points out, the gap has widened. The percentage of African-Americans holding a bachelor’s degrees grew from 15.7 percent to 19.9 percent in the past decade; among Latinos, it went from 11.1 percent in 2001 to 14.1 percent in 2011. But 34 percent of non-Hispanic whites now have a college degree while 28.7 percent did in 2001. Among Asian Americans, 50.3 have bachelor’s degrees and 19.5 have graduate degrees.
The gap between the number of men and women getting college degrees is also steadily narrowing. In 2001, men had a 3.9 percentage-point lead in earning bachelor’s degrees and a 2.6 percentage-point lead in regard to graduate degrees. But in 2011, both gaps are now 0.7 percent.
Engineering and science represent 34.9 of the total bachelor’s degrees earned. The numbers of men in these fields has been lessening with women making steady gains: Only 23 percent of degrees in science or engineering are held by women over the age of 65. But among those aged 40 to 64, 36 percent of degrees in science or engineering are held by women — and, among those 25 to 39, 45.9 percent have been granted to women, a sign that the push for women to enter the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is proving successful. It is a real gain for women as such fields offer careers with above-average incomes and workers with such backgrounds are in high demand.
Citing another Census Bureau report, “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2009,” the Chronicle of Higher Education points out that those who have a postsecondary degree have been less affected by the recession. While the rate of unemployment for Americans with a bachelor’s degree was 5.9 percent in February 2010 when unemployment peaked, 17.9 percent of those without a college degree were unemployed at that time, in contrast.
As Stanley G. Jones, president of Complete College America, says in in the Chronicle of Higher Education, ”While the progress is being made, we’re a long time away from declaring victory.” The increase in Americans with college degrees should be lauded. But it remains to be seen how escalating student debt on college loans and the effects of the recession may affect, and even deter, students from attaining college degrees. The Obama administration needs to stand by its word of raising the country’s college-graduation rate to be the highest in the world by 2020; policies must be put in place, and swiftly, to make and to keep college affordable for all Americans.
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